Discovering One's Hidden Psychopathy, With James Fallon
Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses how he came to discover (and how he's learned to live with) the fact that he's a borderline psychopath.
James Fallon teaches neuroscience at the University of California Irvine, and through research explores the way genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the brain gets built -- and then how individuals' experience further shapes its development. He lectures and writes on creativity, connsciousness and culture, and has made key contributions to our understanding of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Only lately has Fallon turned his research toward the subject of psychopaths -- particularly those who kill. With PET scans and EEGs, he's beginning to uncover the deep, underlying traits that make people violent and murderous.
James Fallon: My book, The Psychopath Inside, is a memoir and it’s a mix of a personal story and what the science is, that is, the psychiatry and the genetics and the neuroscience behind what the subject is which is psychopathy. But it’s really a story about somebody, me, who at 60 finds out he’s not really who he thought he was all along in his whole life. And not until I had just by serendipity, by chance, started to run across biological evidence first from PET scans, positron emission tomography scans, that I was involved with – acted as a control in one study in Alzheimer’s disease and also had my genetics done. So it was just as a control and to compare to other people with Alzheimer’s. And so it was through that about, oh, seven years ago that I found out something very strange. And this something strange both in terms of my brain pattern and genetics happened to run, it intersected with another study I had been doing – a minor study on looking at PET scans and FMRIs, another kind of brain scan, and SPEC scans of killers, really bad murderers.
And these are particularly bad hombres and some serial killers, et cetera. And I had looked at these and had been asked to analyze them over the years from the early 1990s onward. And about the same time, 2005, when I was doing my own scans for this Alzheimer’s study I had a whole group of these killers and also psychopaths and looked at a pattern. I said, “My God, there’s a pattern in the brain for these guys.” And so I started to talk about it, give talks and, you know, at academic institutions and psychiatry departments, law schools, et cetera, just to kind of vet the idea. But at the same time I got this pile of scans back that included my own and these other controls. And I was looking through – I got to the last scan of that study of the Alzheimer’s and I looked at it and I asked my technician. I said, “You’ve got to check the machine because this is obviously one of the killers.” One of the murderers. It looked like really a severe case of brain activity loss in a psychopath.
And so when I ultimately they said, “No, this is part of – it’s in this control group.” And I had to tear back the name on it because I always do everything blind but this was like something’s really wrong. And it turned out to be my name. So it was like, you know, Gandalf shows up at the door and you’re it. So that started this whole trajectory. Now at first I laughed at it and I just didn’t care. We were so busy working on the genetics of Alzheimer’s and also schizophrenia and I had just started an adult STEM cell company. And so I was so busy with stuff I kind of let it go for a couple of years really – about a year and a half. But then the genetics came back and I had all the genetic alleles, the forms of the genes that are associated with a high aggression and violence, psychopathy, and a low kind of empathy, that intrapersonal emotional empathy. And low anxiety.
And when I got that back I started to take a little bit of note but I still didn’t care about it. And it wasn’t until I ended up giving a talk. I was asked to give a talk with the ex-prime minister of Oslo who had bipolar disorder. And so I went to Oslo to give a public talk with him, the clinician, on bipolar. You know, what’s the brain patterns. And I had to use my own example of how you do imaging genetics. Take imaging of the brain, genetics, put it together in a mathematical model and how we figure it out so it can be used for all sorts of psychiatry medicine. And in the audience were all these psychiatrists there and I went through my own pathologies if you will and near clinical syndromes and my genetics and my brain scan. And at the end the head of the department there said, “You don’t even know this I bet but you’re bipolar first of all because you don’t have the kind of bipolar in the United States that they use, one of the kinds.” So this is interesting.
He said, “I want to talk to you afterwards.” So I met with these psychiatrists afterwards. They said you’re probably borderline psychopath too looking at all this. Well this was kind of a real surprise. It’s the first time I took it seriously because I – not only the biological evidence but these people didn’t even know me. They were just looking at the data, you know. And they could see my behaviors and in talking to me for a couple of hours after that talk at somebody’s house they said you probably do. So when I flew back to the United States what I did was I started asking the psychiatrist, the neurologist that I knew really well for many years and who know my behaviors including my not so nice behaviors. And I said, “You’ve got to tell me what you really think of me.” And each one of them had said, “Well, you know, we’ve told you for many years you’re, you know, you do psychopathic things. You’re probably a borderline psychopath.”
I said, “No, no, no. You said I was crazy.” They said, “Well we never said you were crazy. You’re not crazy. But you’re like a borderline psychopath.” Then I asked all my close friends, my wife, the people in my family and they all had the same thing to say. And at that point it was really kind of hit me. I was like well this is maybe true. And I started to take the test for psychopathy and I came up borderline, a borderline psychopath. That is a very high score without being what’s called a categorical full blown psychopath which contains these – a lot of antisocial and criminal parts of it. And since I’m not a criminal – I’ve had conversations with the police many times but I was always able to kind of talk my way out of it, get them to laugh, you know. But I have no record or anything. But I’ve done some fun things.
Now and so at that point – and I was just sitting with these two psychiatrists and I said, “You’ve got all this evidence in front of you. I mean, do you see what’s going on?” And I’m telling you I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. And they said, “That’s the point. You don’t care.” And so at that point, you know, I had started to – I gave a TED talk and then a MOTH talk, science festival. And then I got contacted by some people that did different crime shows, you know, want to be on Criminal Minds and things like that. But after that I got contacted by – the same day by three literary agents in New York and they said you ought to write a book about this. And I said, “Are people really interested in this?” And it was personal too.
When I wrote the book I really, you know, had a heart to heart talk with my whole family because this is going to be – could be embarrassing, you know, for all of us. There could be some exposure and risk. But they were sort of heroic about it. I just had to count on my own narcissism to drive it. Like I can do this. I can beat this. I can write this. I’m tough. And so I kind of used some of the traits to drive it forward. So actually coming out like this, it also assured that I couldn’t get away with things anymore, you know. When you tell people what you’re doing like I do in the book, many of the things, they’re looking for it. And so it’s like, you know, my game’s up in a sense. But I’m also 66, you know, do I really want to be that way anymore. I still have fun with it but it’s just a challenge, right. It’s a challenge and I think I can overcome it.
So I have to use my ego, my sense of narcissism to manipulate myself to handle it, you know. And but it was really my family that said go for it. My mother is still alive and she’ll say you’re saying too much. You’re saying way too much. And, of course, I said, “Ma, you don’t know the half of it.” Of course I said as long as you’re alive and my family’s alive, my kids, you know, I’m telling a piece of the story but I give a fair amount in the book more than in my talks. But I asked the psychiatrist who has known me for many years what behaviors that are not so obvious that I do to people that would be psychopathic. And he asked me about revenge and my getting even. Now everybody gets mad, right. Somebody ticks you off, you get mad. You get mad for 5 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute – everybody. It’s a normal thing. And your serotonin kicks in after about 5 minutes and it cools you down.
In psychopaths it doesn’t happen. It stays on boil – it stays on a hard boil. But even though you can control it you’re still angry. You can stay angry for extremely long periods of time. And that is sort of set up in utero because those areas of the brain that respond to serotonin are altered by these so called warrior genes. So they don’t respond when you get older when the serotonin would have made you calm. And so psychopaths will get very angry but they’ll stay angry. And in the case of mine what I told two of the psychiatrists who are very close to me. I said when I get mad I don’t show it to anybody. I said I could be furious at you and you’d never know it. I show no anger whatsoever. I don’t show anxiety. I said first of all you’ll never know. And I said I can sit on it for a year or two or three or five. But I’ll get you. And I always do. And they don’t know where it’s coming from. They can’t tie it to the event and it comes out of nowhere.
And something dramatic happens in their life but I’m very careful. Almost pristine about it. That it’s a fair response. It’s a proportional response. So if somebody does something – you can do a lot, you know. You can say anything to me and I won’t get mad, really. Those things don’t get me mad. Somebody’s trying to get me – it’s like another psychopath or another, you know, somebody’s trying to mess with me. I have a high threshold so many things really don’t get me mad. You can just about do anything. I’m pretty cool that way. But if you really do then I always get even and I’ll make sure it’s the same sort of intensity that their initial damage. And I said I can stay cool and it’ll happen and they’ll look around – what happened with their job, what happened with their family, what happened – they won’t know. And they both said that’s psychopathic. That’s exactly it.
And so some of the, you know, the people at the BBC in Australia who I talked to, some science writers said that’s what Dexter is. So really when I saw Dexter I absolutely understood it because he was being fair, he was being fair to the universe and the world of ethics of the universe he’s absolutely fair. Morality wise not so much but I could really understand that behavior.
One of the surprises for me starting about six years ago and for the few years until now – when I said, you know, something’s really wrong that I was not cognizant of – I didn’t know I had this. And even though other people did they won’t tell you, you know. Once I asked they said of course you’re that. But so people protect people close to them. They protect their tormentors. It’s kind of a family Stockholm effect. And I interviewed some really dangerous bad guys in prison and they protect their tormentors. And so a lot of times you won’t find this out. You have to ask and you have to say I’m not gonna get even with you. Just tell me the truth and you say it to enough people that they know you’re doing it. Then you’ll find that out. So when that happened and I started to think.
I said well how can I change this without anybody knowing. So I just started with my wife a couple of years ago. I started and every time I was about to do something with her, you know, we’re pouring a glass of wine or eating or going to a show – anything. I would stop for one moment and I would say what are you doing. And I noticed that every time I was about to do something with her it was absolutely the most selfish thing. And for regular behavior it’s like you pour yourself the wine first, you serve yourself first, you try to get out of some duties even though you make it look like you’re cleaning up. But also it gets worse than that. So doing, you know, for birthdays or if there was a big party going on and there was a death in the family, an uncle or an aunt, and I thought there’s another party – I’d make up an excuse to go to the party. I would just blow off those things.
But it would extend it to everything I was doing. You know, and even to people who are close to me – not only family. And I noticed that, and I said, geez, everything I’m doing is maximally like selfish. So I have to slow myself down now and try to just do the correct thing – very small. You know you have to start small because that’s where you have to start because the other stuff’s too traumatic to really try to change yourself. But I tried doing this and I noticed that – and I didn’t tell her I was doing this and other people. And they said I like your behavior, you’re different, what happened. And I told them, I said you know I don’t really mean it. And they said – my wife said I don’t care. You’re just treating me better. And I went – I couldn’t believe it. I thought – see I had taken the whole thing of empathy and meaning beyond what people behaviorally are asking for.
And everybody in my life they said who knows what people’s motivations are. If you’re treating me well it means you’re trying. That’s all that matters. This blew me away and I really still don’t understand it but I keep trying to do that, right. And so but I have to stop myself in each one of these – anytime I do something I say what’s the right thing to do. When you do that and you’re somebody like me you realize your whole day is spent thousands of times doing the most selfish things.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Neuroscientist James Fallon discusses how he came to discover (and how he's learned to live with) the fact that he's a borderline psychopath. Fallon is the author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (http://goo.gl/ioGrhS).
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Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
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